When you think of escaping, you want to go away from what you currently have, where you momentarily are. For us Europeans, the furthest one could think of might be the other end of the world – Australia. While travelling to the distant continent, though, experiences are not limited to the distance. More than that, you will probably find them within your mind.
You will soon come to the realisation that other places are not actually remote, as they are merely somebody else’s homeland. Sharing such stories is how travel can change the world. Therefore, TEDxVienna invites you to follow our footsteps that lead from Adelaide, the capital of Southern Australia, along the Stuart Highway – into the red deserts of the Outback.
After a short drive of merely 850 kilometres, the traveller lands in Coober Pedy – the opal mining capital of the world. The name derives from the local Aboriginal term kupa-piti, meaning “white man’s hole” and fittingly describing the scenery. Due to “freezing nights in winter and scorching days in summer forcing its residents to live in caves dug out of the hillsides. This form of settlement is not just an astonishing sight for tourists, but is also an immaculate example of how some cultures have found ways of living in environments that “civilized” Europeans would consider uninhabitable. Still, Coober Pedy is without a doubt one of the more “civilized” spots within the Australian hinterland. So, let’s get back on the road and dive deeper into the Outback – into the home of the Indigenous People of Australia.
Engaging with those who have not forgotten about the old ways is not an easy stunt – which is quite understandable, given that Aboriginal people have had many negative experiences with “white folk” in their past. Still, trying to feel the unique cadence and rhythm of their culture lets the traveller learn about other ways of being, of thinking and of looking at things. “The ethnosphere is humanities’ greatest legacy: it’s all that we are and all that we can be,” says Wade Davis in his TED talk about endangered cultures.
“There is nothing sentimental about those different ways, nor are they weakened by nostalgia. However, some of those stories supply a deeper intuition – by using metaphors that define the relationship between the environment and ourselves.” In case of the Indigenous Australians, this can be found within Tjukurpa. Also called Dreamtime, it describes the mythological period of time during which the natural environment was shaped and humanized by the actions of mythic beings.
Within these stories and tales, one will find a close connection – man regarded as part of nature, not fundamentally dissimilar to the mythic beings or to the animal species, all of which share a common life force. The Aboriginal belief places mankind within the Dreaming – it provides an indestructible identity that continues from the beginning of time to the present and into the future.
When engaging in dialogue, it becomes evident how deeply rooted these beliefs are within the culture. It is therefore no surprise that, after decades of violation, Uluru was closed for climbers a few years ago. “Tjukurpa […] is the spiritual interpretation of the area, the desire to live harmoniously within the natural landscape and is the key to understanding why climbing Uluru is deeply offensive.”
In the emerging global knowledge economy, many indigenous ideas are at risk of becoming extinct because of rapidly changing natural environments and fast pacing political and cultural changes on a global scale. To stop these traditional practices from vanishing, the collective Sustainable Dreaming was formed by artists and cultural ambassadors working across various fields towards a common goal.
Sharing their stories to empower and connect communities, creating projects that benefit society and the environment with a focus on earth-based knowledge, interconnectedness, and the spirit of the land and people – it’s not just about accessing wisdom, but applying it.
Another interesting approach is the incorporation of Aboriginal traditions and ideas into Australian architecture by the Merrima Group. “Merrima’s work at Wilcannia contributes to cultural sustainment by crafting new in-between spaces […] Rather than being isolated, objectified, aestheticised or monumentalised, architecture exists primarily as a site of cultural practice – and its success is judged in as much as it affords and promotes this practice.”
Wade Davis underlines the importance of these endeavours with harsh words: “If we continue this way, our current time may not be remembered for innovation of new ideas but for the destruction of old ones.” We are fighting hard to put the horrible shadows of physical genocide behind us, however, ethnocide is still happening. Cultures are not destined, but driven to die out, resulting in “monochromatic monotony rather than polychromatic diversity.”
Header image credits royalty free, Image by Olivia List